1787 - 1800



THE dramatic impact of the French Revolution upon a situation which for months had been overwrought entailed disturbing consequences. Within a week after the setting up of the new government there began that long series of events in France which carried far and gave birth to extraordinary hopes and fears; and throughout the remaining years of the century the French movement exercised a determining influence upon American parties and issues. In the words of Colonel Higginson, it "drew a red-hot ploughshare through the history of America as well as through that of France. It not merely divided parties, but molded them; gave them their demarcations, their watchwords and their bitterness. The home issues were for a time subordinate, collateral; the real party lines were established on the other side of the Atlantic."1 The stirring of political passions afresh resulted in greatly clarifying political philosophies, and in rendering more exact, political alignments that before had been vague and inchoate.

The creative influence of the French Revolution upon the western world resulted from the enormous impetus which it gave to the movement to democratize American life and institutions. In no other country to which the sparks of revolution drifted was there such quantity of combustible material ready for the torch; and in setting afire this native material the French upheaval put a stop to the aristocratic reaction which had carried everything before it during the previous decade. It spread widely the spirit of leveling, and destroyed the last hope of the "monarchy, men." But it did more-it gave a wide and popular currency tothe ideal of democracy. Before the French Revolution the American mind had been curiously sensitive over the term democrat; even Samuel Adams had been driven by expediency to reject the word, and, amongst the radicals, few had the boldness to avow themselves democrats. By common consent the term had been covered with opprobrium; democracy was no other than a bellua multorum capitum, the hydra-headed monster of earlier Tories, licentious, irreligious, the very spawn of anarchy. But now the old conceptions were rapidly swept away, and democracy was accepted by liberals as the ultimate form of political organization, to which the American experiment was to be dedicated.

In thus imparting social idealism to political speculation, the Revolution not only elevated the democratic ideal but it provided a body of philosophy, the lack of which had so seriously handicapped the democrats during the great debate. And this new philosophy gained extraordinarily wide currency in America under the stimulus of revolutionary enthusiasm. It made direct appeal to the vast majoritv who still remained among the political disinherited; it aroused them to political consciousness and intensified the class alignment that followed. The country divided sharply between left and right, and political discussion became more intense as the French movement developed. The English declaration of war upon France produced a crisis in America, and sharpened the party cleavage. The Federalists went with Great Britain and turned fiercely upon the democratic movement, assailing it with increasing venom. The democrats, on the other hand, became French partisans, and denounced all aristocrats with truerepublican fervor, becoming more radical as French Jacobinismdeveloped. Never before had political passion risen to such heights in America, not even during the early days of the American Revolution; and never before had political ideas taken such hold upon the common people. Out of this increasing ferment emerged certain consequences of vast signficance to the democratic movement: not only was an effective barrier erected against the further spread of aristocratic Federalism, but certain of its most characteristic doctrines disintegrated and disappeared. The current dogma of faction gave way to a more democratic interpretation of the majority will; the doctrine of the ethical absolute-the vox justiciae, vox dei-quietly yielded to the more practical conception of expediency; and the lately resurrected ideal of an augmented state received a temporary check, the majority Preferring to intrust power to local bodies rather than to a central authority.

At the beginning sympathy of America as a whole went heartily with the revolutionary movement in France. The adherence of Lafayette justified the cause to the most conservative. But with the advent of the Girondists to power a division in American sentiment appeared: Hamilton, John Adams, and other extreme federalists drew back in disapproval; and with the rise of the Jacobins, party cleavage became sharp and bitter. All over America the liberals organized democratic clubs, instituted committees of correspondence, and actively forwarded the new leveling principles. The attack on ceremonial and titles of address in Congress, of which Maclay has left record in his Journal, was only a skirmish in the general war levied upon social distinctions.2It was to these democratic societies that Citizen Genêt made appeal; they rallied about him, toasted the French principles, and assured him of the warm support of the American people. The recall of Genêt was a blow to the American Jacobins, and they retaliated by direct appeals to the people to repudiate the act of the administration. Stung by their criticism of his policy of neutrality, Washington denounced them as "certain self-created societies" that offensively "assumed the tone of condemnation" of governmental policies; and went so far as to imply that such criticism was seditious. It was ill-advised for it was like a torch to dry leaves. The Federalists fell upon the democrats with gusto. They denounced the infidel French mobocracy and its American offspring. They declaimed against "secret organizations," imputing to them every evil known to Satan: the democratatic clubs were called "demoniacal clubs," "nurseries of sedition," "hotbeds of faction"; and common decency required that they be put down with a strong hand. In short the most eminent Federalists joined heartily in the silly work of turning the country into a bedlam.

A characteristic odium theologicum quickly gathered about the movement and extended to the whole democratic philosophy. Well-meaning but ignorant gentlemen saw in Jacobinism only atheism and immorality. John Adams professed not to know "what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists" and he attributed the unhappy result to the "encyclopedists and economists, Diderot and D'Alembert, Voltaire and Rousseau," with their mad doctrines of the "equality of persons and property." But the more violently such men protested, the more insidiously "the infidel and irreligious spirit" spread through the land. It found its way into such strongholds of orthodoxy as Harvard College, to the scandal of the respectable; and as a counterblast to Paine's Age of Reason, a copy of Watson's Apology for the Bible was presented to every Harvard undergraduate, with what results in godliness no record remains to tell. On both sides there was more heat than light, more passion than reason, and in consequence such a tremendous hue and cry was worked up that the noise carried to the farthest outposts of settlement, and brought home to the most sluggish some realization of the significance of the worldwide movement of democracy then under way, and left few quite indifferent to the import of the tricolor cockade. It was the first great popularization of democratic ideals in America and when the hubbub finally subsided it was apparent to all that democracy had made a definite and stable advance, from which it must move forward to still other vantage points. Only a few unregenerate aristocrats shared with Gouverneur Morris his reasons for joy at the final overthrow of Napoleon: "'Tis done, the long agony is over. The Bourbons are restored. France reposes in the arms of her legitimate prince"; or who agreed with Robert Treat Paine in calling the democratic movement of the nineties "the melancholy record of our national degradation." The Federalists still hated Jefferson and his "revolution of 1800," but a triumphant agrarianism had broken them and their power for the time being.

So tremendous a movement naturally developed its literature of propaganda in America as elsewhere. In the main this was little more than an echo of the old-world debate, and, in particular, of the controversy between Burke and Paine which deeply stirred the entire English reading-public. Among the innumerable pamphlets, four works may be regarded as representative: Paine's Rights of Man, Barlow's Advice to the Privileged Orders, John Adams's Discourses on Davila, and John Quincy Adams's Publicola; and of these we need here concern ourselves only with The Rights of Man and Publicola, which clearly reveal the divergent political philosophies of the two parties. The chief point of difference is the familiar issue, so acrimoniously dealt with during the debate over the Constitution, the question of minority rights as opposed to the majority will. Paine had made wide appeal with his argument of social expediency against Burke's doctrine of pre-contract. His celebrated dictum, "That which a whole nation chuses to do, it has a right to do," if granted, must destroy the reasoning not of Burke alone, but of American Federalism, for it rested on an interpretation of sovereignty that was vital to the question. To Paine sovereignty was necessarily inherent in the present majority will; to assume that it rested elsewhere, whether in crown or judiciary or past generations, was to deny the fundamental tenet of democracy. There can be no trusteeship superior to the sovereign people, he asserted-no constitution beyond their rightful power to alter or destroy.

It was against this doctrine of the present sovereignty of the majority will that eleven articles signed Publicola, and appearing in the Columbian Centinel of Boston from June 8 to July 27, 1791, were directed. They were from the pen of John Quincy Adams, then in his early twenties and lately admitted to practice at the Boston bar. Written with considerable skill, they were at once accepted as the most effective reply offered to Paine's argument; but they have lost their appeal today and seem rather slight and tenuous essays in Federalistic legalism. The outstanding note is concern for minority rights. To permit the majority will to function unchecked seemed to this young lawyer to open wide the door to tyranny. It is justified by no political philosophy, he argued, certainly not by the doctrine of natural rights. If all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, it follows that such rights must suffer abridgment from no power, whether monarchical or democratic. Power may override those rights temporarily, but power and rights are not synonymous terms. The gist of Adams's argument is thus set down:

This principle, that a whole nation has a right to do whatever it pleases, cannot in any sense whatever be admitted as true. The eternal and immutable laws of justice and of morality are paramount to all human legislation. The violation of those laws is certainly within the power, but it is not among the rights of nations. The power of a nation is the collected power of all the individuals which compose it . . . . If, therefore, a majority . . . are bound by no law human or divine, and have no other rule but their sovereign will and pleasure to direct them, what possible security can any citizen of the nation have for the protection of his unalienable rights? The principles of liberty must still be the sport of arbitrary power, and the hideous form of despotism must lay aside the diadem and the scepter, only to assume the party-colored garments of democracy.3

Concerning the repository of the "eternal and immutable laws of justice and morality," which are paramount to all human legislation, Adams is as vague as other Federalists; but he seems to imply that it is the body of English Common law, and that abstract justice is somehow interwoven with the British constitution. In other words, his argument conducts straight to the familiar doctrine of vox justiciae, vox dei, with its implied sovereignty of the judiciary. In this, with other thinkers of the abstract justice school, Adams was upholding the principle of judicial trusteeship in opposition to the democratic principle of the majority will. The distinction reveals exactly the different positions of the two parties: the democrats accepted the principle of utilitarian expediency; the Federalists espoused the doctrine of the ethical absolute as the final law. To a generation still strict in religious professions, the doctrine of the ethical absolute made strong appeal; but the democrats attacked it so sharply that it survived only by skillfully metamorphosing itself into judicial sanctions.

The final outcome of the long acrimonious discussion of fundamental principles was a curious reversal of positions: whereas the democrats were charged with being political and social romantics, appealing to a false psychology and following abstract theory, they were in fact idealists who pointed to the sordid facts of economic and social reality, in justification of new programs. No change could make things worse. The Federalists, on the other hand, finding the appeal to realism making against them, and fearful of the majority that was discontented with the status quo, took their stand upon abstract principle that was cousin german to a rigid legalism. It was a significant impasse to which they were brought by the exigencies of the political struggle.

1Quoted in Hazen, "Contemporary American Opinion of the French Revolution," in Johns Hopkins University Studies in History and Political Science, Extra Vol. êThe material in this excellent study has been used freely in the present chapter.
2For an amusing account see Hazen,ibid., pp. 209-219.
3The Writings of John Quincy Adams, edited by W. C. Ford, Vol. I, pp. 7o-71.